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VIA DEER CREEK
BY C. NELSON HACKETT
TEITHER with fir nor cedar, with tamarack nor juniper
does my story begin. No native branch do I lift up that ever the Sierra knew. I extol instead the Citrus aurantium, whose golden fruit made pleasant all our journey from the Big Arroyo to Bearpaw Meadow, though partaken of but once, and it divided. How sweet were the influences shed by that inceptive orange you of the cult will readily believe when I relate to you the facts.
We were seated in a saddle of the Great Western Divide, the headwaters of the Big Arroyo on one side and the source of Deer Creek on the other. Below us in one of the last clumps of trees we had lighted our camp-fire the night before, and there we had slept in its smoke through the chill night and had eaten thirst-provoking porridge and bacon that morning. Ray Bailey's party, with which we had come from Moraine Lake, around the base of the Kaweahs and down into the glorious Arroyo the previous day, was just disappearing on its way to the KernKaweah Cañon. At that moment Walter Huber, my sole companion, loosed his pack and produced therefrom, with all the dramatic surprise of an ex-silk-hat-enter-Mr. Rabbit, a marvelous orange.
Since that moment its donor has been to me a canonized saint. The aureole is round his blessed pate and the symbolic citrus in his hand shows still in memory huge as the blue-ribboned ones in the convex jars at a county fair.
The sun was at our backs as we began a descent which was to lower us with neither instancy nor ease from a height of 10,600 to 7000 feet. In the beginning it was almost all snow, and all that was not snow was talus. There was a tiny pond, all frozen, where Deer Creek begins, and then a larger lakelet, with winter's seal upon it, too, though cracked and broken. With every step the cañon widened, the bare cliffs lifted their brows more awesomely. Suddenly we stepped out onto the brink of the bottomless pit. Black and wet and sheer are the cliffs by which mere man must clamber down sixteen hundred feet to the third lake of Deer Creek. This is the chief difficulty between the Kern and the Giant Forest, and the trail-builder will have his task.
My pack was small, but I felt as if I were trying to carry a wardrobe trunk down a winding stair without damaging the plaster. For some time one of us had been going ahead and receiving the two packs which the other handed down to him, when it occurred to me that it would be feasible to let my pack slide ahead of me for ten or fifteen feet. A wild mountain sheep could not have sprung from my grasp with a more lifelike leap -one bound to leave the ledge, another to clear the cliff, and out it spun into the blue, and then down, down. . . . At the base of the cliffs a little stream ran out between high banks of snow. There, on a rock in the midst, like a wet cormorant sunning, I found my much-cursed pack an hour later.
Gerhart Hauptmann, speaking of mysteries in secret societies, says, “Even children possessing a secret in common swell with a sense of importance." To overcome this childish feeling is difficult in remembering the lake we now approached, which is one of nature's most precious revelations to what can be the merest handful of men. The arcana of all societies, from ancient Eleusis to a modern Skull and Crossbones, seem paltry by comparison. With a great apostle, I can say, “Behold, I show you a mystery." Down five hundred feet and more, over cliffs which make dawn late, half a dozen cascades shake their silver ribbons. Groups of stately pines stand on the margin of the lake. From its northern edge rise granite cliffs of marvelous sculpturing. At its northwest end its green and blue waters flow out in a slow and limpid stream through a magnificent forest. Every puddle in Italy, every pond in New Englandeven the waterless hollows of the moon–have their names, but this glorious lake lies flashing in the summer sun, unnamed, almost unknown.
From this lake (Lake San Graal I think I shall call it until a more authoritative christening) there is no royal highway down Deer Creek. We tried the cliffs to the right, failed, moved a short distance through brake-fern higher than our heads, then through a wildwood tangle, crossed the creek on a log where the final "r" of "Deer" is on the Government map, tried the cliffs of the south side, and then finally made for a place down-stream some three-quarters of a mile, where the creek again ran into a forest and gave promise that the jungle there would cease. In the meantime it was a hand-to-branch encounter. Underfoot was tippy talus concealed largely by vines. Manzanita did the low tackling, while elder and deer-brush slashed at our faces in front or at our packs from behind. Nor did the sun forget to concentrate his rays on our perspiring foreheads.
Our destination was Bearpaw Meadow, where we expected to meet two fellow-Sierrans who were coming in from the Giant Forest to join the main party. We might now have followed on down the cañon to Wet Meadow and climbed up to Bearpaw by trail. Preferring, however, to keep grade, we followed up the right bank of the Kaweah River. From Lone Pine Meadow down to its confluence with Deer Creek this branch of the Kaweah is almost one long cascade. We spent the afternoon climbing up ledges or burrowing through brush without finding a place at which the stream could be forded. But when we surmounted the eight-thousand-foot contour we came out into a wide swale and there gingerly crossed the river on a snow bridge just below the point where it bends to the east. At once we hit the trail from Lone Pine to Bearpaw. Kipling speaks of “the trail that is always new," but in a sense the trail is also always old. That late afternoon, certainly, after our contest with the wilderness, the trail seemed something ancient and familiar and full of comfort. We were glad to set our feet in the way that other human feet had trod.
Like the hanging gardens of Babylon is Bearpaw Meadow-a part of the slope of the mountain, 1500 to 2000 feet above the Kaweah River. Its long grassy slope, filled with aspens and wild flowers, is watered by little streams that flow across it down the mountainside. Our expected friends did not meet us, and we broke our hardtack in disappointment.
I remember no more glorious pageant than we witnessed from Bearpaw that evening. Down Kaweah Cañon and far on to the west we saw the hot San Joaquin Valley, covered with a dark haze, the sunset sky above it splendid with a tarnished but royal crimson, “the excess of glory obscured," like Satan newfallen from Paradise. To the eastward rose the ridges of the Great Western Divide over which we had come. A silvery mist veiled their bases and caused the snowy peaks above to tower with sublimated loftiness.
The warmer days and richer soil of the western side of the range have had a magnifying effect on the flora. Coming back to Lone Pine the next morning, we noted the huge trees of that great overripe forest and, wherever there was a soggy green, the blossoms of the shooting-stars, or cyclamens.
Our object in recrossing the Great Western Divide was Junction Meadows. We did not therefore attempt to return by way of Deer Creek, but chose Triple Divide and the Kern-Kaweah Cañon instead. The waterfall that brings down a tributary to Lone Pine Creek, and the splendid cascade a little farther up on Lone Pine itself, should be starred. We passed Tamarack Lake on the north. A steep climb and we came into a great open theater filled with acres of snow and surrounded by seemingly impregnable walls. Due east across it we went and up over the black cliffs, which on near approach showed considerable plant life. We kept near the little stream that comes down from Lion Lake. Long ridges of granite boulders, arranged like Prussian trenches, so that each seemed to be, but was not, the last, had to be crossed before we reached Lion Lake with its subterranean outlet. High above it we kept, crossed a 12,000-foot pass, swung around a shoulder of loose cinderlike shale, and came upon Glacier Lake at the head of Cloudy Cañon. We kept on eastward and upward, over a long hummock-filled snow-field, and exulted at last to stand on the pass beside Triple Divide Peak. We were now above the Kern-Kaweah, and the rest seemed certain and easy. But still there remained snow and rocks, and rocks and snow. Finally, getting down to the river proved a problem, and only after considerable time lost in vain attempts did we find a ledge and a talus-pile that took us to the bottom. As we floundered down the Kern-Kaweah through the snow and icy slush, our appreciation of its glories was a little dimmed by weariness.
We camped that night within a couple of miles of the main party, darkness having shut down on us. We cooked no supper. We unrolled our beds in the very trail. A fire at our feet was